Children, Youth and Families Amendment (Aboriginal Principal Officers) Bill 2015

Ms HUTCHINS (Minister for Aboriginal Affairs) — I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill, to amend the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005, is an example of the Labor government’s intentions to support Aboriginal children and families by ensuring that Aboriginal children subject to Children’s Court orders remain connected to their community and culture.

There is a significant over-representation of Aboriginal children in the Victorian child protection system. Whilst Aboriginal children and young people make up 1.6 per cent of the Victorian population, they constitute over 16 per cent of children and young people on care and protection orders. The Protecting Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Inquiry, led by Judge Philip Cummins, recommended in 2012 that a major system reform goal should be to ‘plan for practical self-determination for guardianship of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care and culturally competent service delivery’.

The outcomes for vulnerable Aboriginal children are generally poorer than for other children, and it is important that government and the broader community develop new and innovative responses to address the needs of Aboriginal children in Victoria.

Section 18 was included in the Children, Youth and Families Act in 2005. The provision was included to empower Aboriginal agencies to have responsibility for the care and protection of Aboriginal children subject to protection orders. It was envisaged that a phased and planned approach would be followed, and that Aboriginal services and communities would be able to assume greater case planning and management responsibilities for Aboriginal children over time, as they were ready.

The intention of section 18 is to provide for the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to authorise a principal officer of an Aboriginal agency to perform specified powers and functions conferred on the secretary in relation to a protection order in respect of an Aboriginal child. Authorisations have to occur on a case-by-case basis. The current wording of the provision has been found to present a number of impediments to implementing section 18 authorisations:

there is a lack of clarity regarding the meaning of the term ‘principal officer’;

the act does not empower the principal officer of an Aboriginal agency to delegate functions and powers to suitable employees of their agency;

connected with this, section 17(1)(e) prevents the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services from delegating the function to be satisfied that a permanent care order placing an Aboriginal child solely with a non-Aboriginal person or persons will accord with the Aboriginal child placement principle, which would also prevent delegation by an Aboriginal principal officer;

the act does not provide for internal review, within an Aboriginal agency, of decisions made under a section 18 authorisation, or subsequent review by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal;

appropriate arrangements for sharing information in relation to section 18 authorisations have not been established.

Anything to do with the removal of children from parental care is challenging, and particularly for Aboriginal communities, in light of historical practices in child welfare. Many Aboriginal families and communities still experience the traumatic impact of these past practices today. It is understandable then, that there will be a variety of views in Aboriginal communities about Aboriginal organisations taking on this kind of role. It is entirely understandably that there will be differences of opinion. Ongoing consultation will be vital as we progress towards making section 18 authorisations.

I want to assure the house that the implementation process will be managed with great care, and these issues will be approached sensitively. For section 18 authorisations to happen both the board of an Aboriginal agency and the Aboriginal principal officer need to agree to accept the authorisation.

This bill will clarify the meaning of the term ‘principal officer’, which will be defined as the chief executive officer, or equivalent, of an Aboriginal agency. This is the position most similar to the position of secretary in the department — the person employed as the head of the organisation.

The bill will empower the Aboriginal principal officer of an Aboriginal agency to delegate authorised functions and powers to suitable employees of their agency. It will allow for the powers and functions of a section 18 authorisation to be exercised by a person who is acting as the principal officer, whether that person is Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal. These measures will overcome significant practical barriers to implementing these authorisations, while maintaining an appropriate balance between privileging self-determination through decision-making by Aboriginal people for Aboriginal children, and avoiding disruption to decision-making arrangements for a child if a chief executive officer takes leave or there is a gap between ongoing appointments.

The bill will repeal section 17(1)(e) of the act which prevents the secretary from delegating a function requiring the secretary to be satisfied that a permanent care order placing an Aboriginal child solely with non-Aboriginal carers will accord with the Aboriginal child placement principle before such an order can be made. Both the secretary and the Aboriginal principal officer will be able to delegate this function, which will prevent any delays associated with carrying out this function personally.

The bill provides for internal reviews of decisions made in the course of section 18 authorisations within the Aboriginal agency, in the same way that such reviews are available in relation to decisions made within the department. If the internal review process has been exhausted, an application can be made to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal for review of the decision. This mirrors the process where the secretary or their delegate is the decision-maker.

This bill allows for information to be shared for the purposes of a section 18 authorisation, including where this may otherwise be prohibited. It provides for information sharing prior to an authorisation so that the Aboriginal principal officer and agency can make an informed decision about whether to agree to the authorisation, and there is a penalty provision to prohibit further disclosure. The existing protections in relation to disclosure of information about a child and family will apply to the Aboriginal principal officer and agency where an authorisation is made, as will existing penalty provisions. The bill also requires that where an authorisation is revoked, all records in respect of the child are provided to the secretary by the Aboriginal principal officer.

It is acknowledged that the history and past actions of government and non-government agencies have negatively impacted on Aboriginal families and this has resulted in continued trauma for Aboriginal communities. Policies that support self-management and self-determination provide healing opportunities and increase the capacity of Aboriginal communities to care for their children.

The bill is a powerful symbol of the Labor government’s commitment to developing a service system based on the principles of self-determination and reform that will improve outcomes and the cultural connectedness of vulnerable Aboriginal children.

I commend the bill to the house.

Debate adjourned on motion of Ms VICTORIA (Bayswater).

Debate adjourned until Wednesday, 30 September.